Lately, I have been thinking about charity. St. Paul says that as essential as faith and hope are, that it is charity that is the most important. And I am sure you have heard it said that when we stand before God at the end of our life, charity is going to be the one point of questioning. It was St. John of the Cross who is famous for saying, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” The final test of our life—answered in a single question. Even though we know in advance what the test question will be, we tend to spend a whole lot more time and energy fretting about our sins, quirks, temperaments, and foibles, than about charity. I know I do. But foibles, from what I hear, aren’t on the test. Charity, often translated simply as love, is worth consideration if my whole life, and yours, is balanced in its scale.
In reflecting on charity, it seems worthwhile to clarify what charity is not. For one thing, it is not “being nice.” Being nice is very often the people-pleasing technique used to “fit in” and “keep up.” As you know, Christians are not necessarily called to fit in or keep up. Being nice is often an excuse for not telling the truth, not confronting bullies, and not righting wrongs. Not only is “being nice” not charity, it can be an obstacle to charity. The secular society we live in holds up “being nice” as a very important tenant of its code of conduct. The Christian code of conduct, however, holds up telling the truth even if it is uncomfortable, unpopular, and causes us to be ostracized, or worse. †Fr. Benedict used to remind us with regularity, “Nice means stupid.”
Charity is also not giving away things that you neither need nor want. Not that it is bad to give away things that you neither need nor want. I do it all the time. It is practical and good to do so. But my point is, this is not yet charity.
Charity is not doing something good out of guilt, shame, or penance. Charity is not a photo-op. Charity is not reaching down to aid another out of superiority or self-righteousness. All of these things are counterfeits for true charity.
Charity (love) is not the sentimental, ephemeral affection that marks the beginnings of romantic relationships. Nor is it the gripping, intoxicating experience we call “falling in love.” (Obviously, charity has nothing at all in common with the lust that drives the “use and discard,” “hook-up” culture; in fact, it is the opposite.)
Charity is what God is. “If you see charity, you see the Trinity,” wrote St. Augustine in the 4th century. Augustine got this idea from St. John, the beloved disciple, who wrote the fourth gospel and three letters which are included in the New Testament. John essentially had one theme: God is love. Come to know it for yourself, and then share it. Imitate Divine Love.
Divine Love is what overshadowed the Blessed Mother. Divine Love was born on the first Christmas. Divine Love is what caused Jesus to sweat blood. Divine Love is what held Him to the cross. Divine Love descended to Hell. Divine Love overcame death and burst forth from the grave.
Divine Love is what impelled St. Francis to forsake human respect and reputation and risk his life to serve lepers. Divine Love is what moved St. Clare to renounce her family and fortune for the cloister. It was Divine Love that burned in the heart of Maximillian Kolbe and impelled him to offer his life in place of another man, and Divine Love is what kept him cheerfully singing as he was being killed by starvation, and finally, by poison injection in a concentration camp in Auschwitz.
Charity, the kind we learn from God, the kind that reveals the Trinity, is a gratuitous gift of self—giving, giving, giving, until it hurts. This “loving God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God,” we don’t have in us; it’s not natural to us. We can only get it from one source: God is that Source.
If we reduce charity to “being nice” or giving away old clothes, we lure ourselves into a secular malaise and blunt the sharp edge of true charity. In one of his novels, C.S. Lewis creates an angelic personification of charity. He describes it as, “Fiery, sharp, bright and ruthless, ready to kill, ready to die, outspeeding light.” Better than pink construction paper hearts, wouldn’t you say?
Once we come to know and believe that this Divine Love is for us, once we really know it in the depths of the heart and not just intellectually, we are changed. And even if we never get the invitation to prove our love in the cloister or the concentration camp, in the kitchen or at the computer will do. The point is to be moved by love, by self-gift, rather than for self-serving motives—to do little things with love, for others, for the love of God, because He wants it. When charity becomes the motive, these small things have eternal significance.
St. Paul said it was “the love of Christ” that urged him on. May it be so for me and for you. I know that I can identify a whole host of motives for doing what I do, but I pray that the Holy Spirit would increase in me, that Love might increase, so that what I do, I do for Love.
Mother Clare, CFR